Phonics Intervention for Reading Instruction and Special Education in the United States

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Research on reading and reading growth over the last decades has produced a strong consensus around the essential elements of beginning reading instruction for all students, whether the focus is prevention or remediation. Findings from evidence-based research show dramatic reductions in the incidence of reading failure when explicit instruction is provided in phonemic awareness, decoding skills, spelling, and writing by classroom teachers (Foorman, Francis, Fletcher, Schatschneider, & Hehta, 1998). These instructional elements are necessary but not sufficient to support the small, but significant, number of students who encounter difficulty in learning to read (Foorman & Torgeson, 2001).

Ensuring that all students become competent readers by third grade is one of the most important tasks of primary-grade educators and is a national priority as evidenced by the No Child Left Behind Act (2001). Although the 2007 National Assessment of Educational Progress has suggested increases in the overall reading achievement of U.S. fourth-grade students, the proportion of students reading below basic levels (> 40%) has not changed appreciably from 1993 to 2005 (Otaiba et al., 2005). In the last two decades, evidence has accumulated pointing to deficits in phonological processing as a core cause of poor reading (Foorman, 1996). A growing body of evidence suggests that deficits in this area can be addressed through appropriate training, particularly for students through grade two (Torgeson, 1997).

State-level curriculum guides increasingly contain these essential elements of early literacy instruction and require the use of research-based methods and materials in reading instruction. Classroom teachers have access to the growing body of reading research and yet the number of students at-risk of failure on state and national assessments often suggests that the students most at-risk of failure are often not accelerating to a large enough degree to catch up with their peers and maintain grade-level performance. Classroom core reading programs generally include intervention materials designed specifically for low readers. One problem with these intervention materials is the pacing of instruction. Classroom teachers often find the pacing too brisk for struggling readers to master. This often results in teachers searching to find other instructional methods and materials that may be used to accelerate at-risk students’ reading achievement.


Reading Instruction and Special Education

The national reading gap in which 40% of our students are not reading at grade level has spurred politicians to initiate reading policy founded on research and accountability (Otaiba et al., 2005). The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 allots federal money to be used to promote literacy in early grades under the premise that schools will use research based interventions and will be accountable to external evaluation (Lyon et al., 2005). Concurrently, special education law is also evolving to improve reading and academics for all students.

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act 2004 described by Burns and VanDerHeyden (2006), shifts eligibility in the category of specific learning disability (SLD) away from a discrepancy model where a significant difference between academics and achievement is required for eligibility. The discrepancy model requires students to fail academically before being identified as eligible for special education services. IDEIA allows local education agencies to redirect eligibility determination of SLD from the ability/achievement discrepancy to a form of assessment that identifies a student’s ability to respond to intervention, which improves instruction for all at-risk students (Batsche, Kavale, & Koveleski, 2006).

Special education is then a last resort for students who do not respond to intensive interventions. This shift in the eligibility process involves increased accountability in general education, requiring teachers to generate data regarding students’ progress in academic areas to guide instruction and identify students who may need further support (National Joint Committee on Learning Disabilities (NCJLD), 2005).

Struggling Students and Reading

The majority of children referred for special education are identified as needing support in the area of reading (Lyon et al., 2005). However, students other than those receiving special education services, require additional reading support, further reinforcing the need for early intervention in kindergarten through second grade when reading skills are emerging (Foorman & Nixon, 2006). Torgesen (1998) indicates that children who do not acquire early reading skills often do not catch up to their peers who are reading at grade level. Negative attitudes towards reading, missed opportunities to develop vocabulary and comprehension, and less practice are characteristics that contribute to the gap between good readers and poor readers. As the gap widens, children who are not reading at grade level require intensive instruction to catch up to their reading peers who are accelerating and increasing their vocabulary at a much higher rate.

As response to intervention encourages educators to intervene for all struggling children as early as possible, it is relevant to examine reading research regarding all diverse learners. Torgesen (2007) indicates there is no correlation between phonological language ability and general verbal ability. For example, children who are dyslexic or have a specific learning disability in reading fall in the same phonological ability range as children with low intelligence. Additionally, slow learners, children with learning disabilities in reading, and children whose home backgrounds do not provide them with beginning reading foundations will require more intensive reading instruction.

Response to Intervention (RTI) and its Implications for Reading

The predominant model being adopted to address the national reading gap under IDEIA and NCLB is RTI. There are varying approaches to RTI. In this paper examination of RTI is described as follows: (a) students are provided with effective instruction by their general education classroom teacher; (b) progress is monitored; (c) those who do not respond to the classroom intervention get something else or something more, from their teacher or someone else; (d) again, students’ progress is monitored; and (e) those who still do not respond either qualify for special education or may be referred for a special education evaluation (Fuchs, Mock, & Young, 2003).

RTI is examined in this paper because the legislature backing the RTI philosophy is impacting change within our school system. RTI is requiring teachers to look at data and implement interventions which may be problematic if appropriate training and support is not provided.

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Mastropieri and Scruggs (2005) posit several relevant concerns regarding implementation, integrity, and the ambiguity of the evolving roles and responsibilities of teachers and diagnosticians.

The National Reading Panel (NRP, 2000) issued a report identifying research regarding key areas of reading instruction, including phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and text comprehension. The National Reading Panel report indicates that students can be successful if they are provided with systematic and direct instruction in key areas of reading instruction. Torgesen (2007) and the National Joint Committee on Learning Disabilities, also known as NJCLD (2005) identified key elements present in effective reading instruction, and recommended that all students should participate in 90 minute reading blocks.

Students requiring more intensive instruction should be targeted for interventions and their progress should be monitored regularly. Interventions must be driven by data and should include the following: (a) reading instruction should be provided in small groups that are differentiated by needs and abilities; (b) adjustments should be made appropriately regarding intensity of instruction and group placement, and should be based on progress monitoring data; (c) small group instruction should include increased practice opportunities and direct (explicit), systematic instruction including error corrections and immediate positive feedback (NJCLD; Torgesen).

National Policy

Recent legislation, including No Child Left Behind (NCLB) of 2001 and the Individuals with Disabilities Improvement Act of 2004 (IDEIA), is placing pressure on schools to implement research based reading interventions in an attempt to remediate the nationwide reading deficit (Foorman & Nixon, 2006). As a result, major changes are taking place systemically to produce improvements on how the nation is teaching reading (Stollar, Poth, Curtis, & Cohen, 2006; Wagner et al., 2006). If change is to occur within the classroom regarding teacher performance, support is needed (Gersten, Morvant, & Brengelman, 1995).

Overview of Legislation

Over the past thirty years, the educational community has embraced various theories of instruction associated with reading (Lyon et al., 2005). Philosophy has driven educational policy, rather than research. In the 1990’s the National Assessment of Educational Progress scores indicated persistent reading problems in 4lh and 8th grades, as well as declining reading abilities of high school seniors. In 1996, Bill Clinton addressed the State of the Union with information regarding a national reading crisis. Forty percent of the nation’s fourth graders were not reading at grade level. As such, the America Reads initiative was established. Funding was set aside for volunteers to help children learn to read; however, the use of volunteers was minimally effective especially with disadvantaged youth (Lyon et al.).

In 1998, the Reading Excellence Act (REA) was passed and was the first mandate specifically focused on reading and required programs to be used that were based on research. When examining the effectiveness of REA, the government found a significant gap in educators’ understanding of scientifically based reading programs as well as a limited capacity for professional development. As a result of REA, federal and state program monitoring and research increased; and accountability at the state level was implemented (Lyon et al., 2005).

The No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act of 2001, an amendment of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (Foorman & Nixon, 2006), and Reading First Legislations utilized research from the National Reading Panel (NRP) Report of 2000, which was a comprehensive summary of research regarding reading and reading instruction. The NCLB mandate allotted federal funds to be used for educational programs that have been deemed effective through research. Two grant programs were designed from NCLB including Reading First and Early Reading First.

Accountability regarding these programs required that schools provided with funding must use research based interventions, provide detailed data regarding plans and progress, and must be evaluated by an external review board (Lyon et al., 2005). As policy continues to guide and support the need for improved reading instruction within general education classrooms, special education law is concurrently aligning itself with NCLB to promote literacy for all students (Foorman & Nixon).

The Education for All Handicapped Children Act (EHA) has been evolving over the past 30 years into what is now known as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act (IDEIA) of 2004 (Foorman & Nixon, 2006; Fuchs, Fuchs, & Compton, 2004). One of the components of the reauthorization involves eligibility of students with specific learning disabilities (SLD). Local education agencies (LEA) are no longer required to determine eligibility through the discrepancy model, which is a significant difference between an individual’s academic achievement and cognitive ability. LEAs can now use Response to Intervention (RTI), a model that promotes the use of data to identify early need for academic support with subsequent implementation of interventions. When students fail to respond to the interventions, they may be identified as SLD (Fuchs & Fuchs, 2007).

Struggling Students and Reading

Current legislative policies regarding NCLB in conjunction with IDEIA’s recent eligibility criteria for students with learning disabilities are driving systemic changes within education to impact reading improvement for all students (Foorman & Nixon, 2006). Historically, students who were provided additional support received those services through special education. Students typically needing support in reading were identified as being learning disabled (LD). Forty years ago, students were rarely identified as having learning disabilities (Fuchs, Fuchs, & Compton, 2004).

In the 1970s Congress included this category into the EHA (PL 94-142) identifying a small population of children who demonstrated unexpected and specific learning failure (Fuchs, Mock, & Young, 2003). Early researchers examined children with low reading scores and found some children had equally low IQ scores, whereas a small group of children had discrepantly higher IQ scores and often higher math scores. The latter group of students was identified as having a specific learning disability because their IQ or ability was discrepantly higher than their academic achievement (Fuchs et al., 2003).

More recently, more than 50% of the children identified as having a disability are labeled as learning disabled, making up approximately 5% of the school population (Fuchs et al., 2004). The discrepancy model, which has been in place since the 1970’s, has been successful in identifying students who have a significant gap, or discrepancy, between their ability and achievement. However, misuse of the discrepancy model and over identification of students under this label has initiated concerns regarding the discrepancy model (Fuchs et al., 2003). In addition, the use of this process in special education has excluded a large population of students, those with low IQ’s who may struggle but do not meet the discrepancy criteria, as well as students from educationally disadvantaged backgrounds who need additional support (Fuchs et al., 2003).

Although the cause for reading failure may vary across students, early intervention is considered helpful for all struggling readers (Torgesen, 1998). Children with low general intelligences demonstrate the same phonological processing weaknesses as children with normal intelligences who have weaknesses in the phonological language domain (i.e., children who would be identified as learning disabled under the discrepancy model) (Torgesen). Students from low socio-economic families are also considered to be more at-risk as they practice reading less often than strong readers and are often deficit in phonological and oral language skills (Otaiba et al., 2005; Torgesen).

Under NCLB, all children including those in special education are expected to make adequate yearly progress (AYP). Despite the allowance of 3% of students in special education (those with severe cognitive delays) to be exempt from standards based testing, research indicates that the primary reason schools do not make AYP is due to the performance of students in special education. Accountability for all students to achieve is necessary regardless of academic placement (Foorman & Nixon, 2006). With the alignment of NCLB and IDEIA, all individuals with reading problems will be targeted early and provided with research based interventions regardless of why the problems are occurring.

Systemic Support for At-Risk Readers

Historically, teachers have implemented a variety of instructional approaches to meet the needs of at-risk students. One approach for supporting at-risk readers is to implement various classroom organizational patterns, in hope that varying student-grouping patterns will improve achievement. An example of this, the Joplin Plan (Powell, 1964), originally used in Joplin, Missouri, grouped students homogeneously across grades and classrooms depending upon each student’s reading level. The Joplin plan was initiated with an assessment of student achievement in reading. Next, students were organized into relatively homogenous groups independent of their grade-level classification. Then, students were sent to reading classes during the day where instruction was adapted to their needs. When evaluated, the Joplin Plan was not found to be significantly more effective than the traditional self-contained classroom grouping approach (Powell).

Interclass grouping of students is a key component of a more recent urban education reform plan to increase the achievement of inner-city students from socioeconomically disadvantaged environments. In a matched experimental study using “Success For All”® (SFA; Slavin, Madden, Karweit, Livermon, & Dolan, 1990) program developers reported that students in an SFA pilot school performed substantially better than comparison school students in reading, and that special education referrals and retentions were substantially reduced. Since that time, a larger set of independent studies involving 260 SFA schools at major demonstration sites have consistently concluded that there is no significant advantage for using the SFA program. In several studies, individual student or cumulative school reading scores declined in SFA schools and there was no evidence that the SFA program did as well as traditional approaches (Pogrow, 2002).

The Federal Title I compensatory education program for at-risk students represents a national effort to raise student reading achievement. Funds for compensatory education services in reading were first allocated by the federal government in 1966 through Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). Title I funds are allocated for the express purpose of improving educational outcomes among poverty or low socioeconomic status (SES) populations. Borman and Augostino (1996) conducted a meta-analysis of studies over a 20-year period and reported the effects of Title I expenditures on student reading achievement. Results of this meta-analysis demonstrated that students served by Title I failed to achieve or maintain levels of success comparable to mainstream peers.

Other studies partially explained the limited success of remedial programs. First, there is a lack of alignment among the theoretical, philosophical, and instructional bases of core classroom and remedial reading instructional programs (Allington, 1994). Wilson-Bridgman (1998) found a lack of alignment between classroom core reading instruction using a synthetic decoding base and the Reading Recovery® program (Clay, 1985), which uses a psycholinguistic approach to reading instruction. When arguing for curricular alignment, Allington (1986) stressed the importance of alignment between curricula—what is to be taught, in what order, using which materials, and the method of instruction used to help the students learn the curriculum. He argued when two reading instructional programs are widely divergent, students can develop confused notions of the nature and purpose of reading. The outcome of unaligned instruction according to Allington (1986) shifts the burden from teachers to students to do the challenging work of aligning instruction between programs. The resulting remedial instruction, lacking alignment with classroom core instruction, can often lead to lower amounts of total instruction for at-risk students.

Another form of compensatory education is federally funded special education. Bean (1991) cited two concerns with the lack of alignment between special education reading instruction and classroom reading instruction. First, instructional time is lost when students transition between the classroom and pullout special education settings. Second, Bean expressed concerns over the negative consequences of categorizing students as learning disabled. Finally, Allington (1994) and Torgeson (2004) asserted that special education has failed in its promise to lift at-risk students out of school failure.

Response to Intervention Models

In response to mounting criticism of pullout special education programs, new procedures that emphasize prevention are being implemented to identify students who genuinely need special education. Fletcher and colleagues (1998) argued that the discrepancy model for identification of students for special education is a “wait to fail” approach that did not provide needed education services to students with disabilities until third or fourth grade when interventions have been shown to be less effective. To address this issue, Vaughn (2003) has developed a three-tier, response-to-intervention (RTI) model to systematically increase instructional time and intensity for at-risk students.

In the RTI model, curriculum-based measurement (Deno, Fuchs, Marston, & Shinn, 2001) is used to frequently monitor student progress so that the effect of instructional intervention can be determined in a more timely manner. In Tier I instruction, students receive reading instruction in their regular classrooms. In Tier II instruction, students who do not make adequate progress receive intensive reading interventions provided through supplemental instruction in small groups in their regular classroom from the classroom teacher or another instructor. If progress-monitoring data indicate that a student is not making adequate progress with the combination of regular classroom and supplemental instructional support (Tier I and Tier II instruction), then a more intensive intervention is provided that may include special education services (Tier III).

Instructional Support for At-Risk Students

The instruction that at-risk students actually receive is a result of classroom organization patterns and decisions about curriculum materials and methods. For example, classroom teachers may be using synthetic phonics instruction materials from a core-reading program’s intervention component. Unfortunately, teachers often find that these intervention materials lack the repetition and intensiveness needed to meet the needs of many at-risk students in their classes.

Struggling students frequently receive supplemental instruction provided by a reading specialist, special education teacher, or another instructor. This instruction is often based on supplemental commercial programs such as Reading Recovery® (Clay, 1985), Reading Mastery® (Adams & Englemann, 1996), Early Interventions In Reading® (Torgeson, 2000), and Early Steps® (Morris, Tyner, & Perney, 2001). These supplemental programs often have independent research to support their effectiveness.

For example, a study conducted by Denton, Anthony, Parker, and Hasbrouck (2004) compared two supplemental programs, Read Well® (Sprick, Howard, & Fidanque, 1998) and Read Naturally® (Ihnot, 1992). In this study, 51 students in grades 2-5 were tutored for 40 minutes, three times per week for ten weeks. When the two groups were compared, students receiving instruction in Read Well ® made significantly greater progress in word identification (fluently reading sight words) than those receiving instruction in Read Naturally®. Although many supplemental programs may claim effectiveness for at-risk students, schools must still decide which programs to use and how to use them.

Students attending a Title I school may see several adults each day, all of whom provide instruction using a different instructional program. Each of these supplemental programs may present instruction from a different philosophical framework with different sequences, strategies, materials, and procedures. An example of how this happens was found in one Granite School District elementary school. A reading specialist and classroom teacher met to plan how they would collaborate using a push-in model. The classroom teacher taught the core reading program to the whole class and used a supplemental program for Tier II small-group instruction. The reading specialist would push into the classroom, double dosing the most at-risk students with an additional small-group reading lesson. The reading specialist was working with a different supplemental program in her additional small-group lesson.

As they monitored their instruction, conflicts related to the presentation of skills using different sequences in the core program and two supplemental programs quickly became evident. Questions arose such as, “Should the spelling patterns taught in the core reading program match what was to be taught in the supplemental programs?” “What about sight words?” “Home practice?” It also became evident that students learned sight words from one word list in the classroom core program, but at-risk students were being expected to learn sight words from three different lists in three different programs.

Effective Schools Research

Students attending Title I schools often have lower academic performance, but this is not always the case. Hoffman (1991) summarized research into the practices found in effective schools conducted in the 1970s and early 1980s in the Handbook of Reading Research, Volume II. In this review, Hoffman described eight attributes of effective schools that produced strong reading achievement among at-risk students. These eight attributes were: (a) a clear school mission; (b) effective instructional leadership and practices; (c) high expectations; (d) a safe, orderly and positive environment; (e) ongoing curriculum improvement; (f) maximum use of instructional time; (g) frequent monitoring of student progress; and (h) positive home-school relationships.

While there was a high level of interest in effective schools research in the 1970s and 1980s, schools that produced high numbers of at-risk students with high reading achievement continued to draw the interest of researchers as they sought to identify factors contributing to positive student learning outcomes. Another study of effective schools conducted by Taylor, Pearson, Clar, and Walpole (1999) confirmed that systematic assessment of student progress was significantly correlated with students growth in reading fluency and overall reading performance. They found that classroom-level data provided a form of internal accountability while giving teachers a useful indication of each student’s progress through the public sharing of data. School-level communication was positively related to reading fluency and comprehension. Teachers in the most effective schools cited collaboration within and across grades as a reason for their success, making use of a collaborative model for reading instruction.

Typically, this meant that instructional support personnel—Title I, reading resource, or special education teachers—went into the classroom for an hour a day to help provide instruction for small, ability-based groups. The presence of a school-wide assessment system also permitted teachers to implement flexible small groups. The collaborative model also allowed schools to utilize teacher personnel in a manner that increased instructional time. Factors such as peer coaching, teaming within and across grades, working together to help all students, and program consistency were mentioned as aspects of collaboration which teachers valued in these most effective schools. Although curricular alignment was not specifically mentioned in this study, teachers were clearly collaborating closely and using student data to drive instruction in these schools that were beating the odds (Taylor et al.).

School reform initiatives have confirmed the results found through effective schools research. For example, a case study by Strahan, Carlone, and Horn (2003) documented three major changes in school culture that contributed to improved student performance on state-mandated achievement tests. First, teachers and administrators developed a shared stance toward learning that linked values and beliefs into a shared sense of responsibility for each child. Second, strengthened instructional methods emphasize more active student engagement where teachers responded to individual student needs and made learning as active as possible.

Third, teachers and administrators developed stronger procedures for promoting data-directed dialogue regarding student progress, measuring their own success based on student learning. Fourth, grade-level planning sessions and site-based staff development featured a process of data-directed dialogue that nurtured changes through the use of a collaborative model. As an administrator that led the Chicago public schools into improved reading instruction, Shanahan (2008) stated:

Good teaching these days is not that individual. Every teacher matters, but no teacher alone really makes the difference-especially in something complex like learning to read. We need teachers who will do a great job and raise literacy achievement and who will then turn these kids over to another teacher, who will also raise literacy achievement. That is more likely to be accomplished when everyone is doing the right thing. The right thing in this case is complex, because there are many things that need to be learned about reading and these things need to be orchestrated into a powerful whole.. .because of this we need textbooks and systematicaly organized curriculum to better support teachers efforts. That makes sense to me. Teachers who work closely with their colleagues by adhering to the discipline of a shared systematic curriculum are not surrendering their professionalism. They are just better focusing their courage and intelligence on those spects of practice where those qualities will help rather than hinder children. (p. 1)

Once again, although alignment of instruction is not directly addressed in this quote, it is clear that as teachers collaborated around student data and develop an organized curriculum, the level of curricular alignment increased.

In spite of different instructional organizational patterns, compensatory school-wide programs, remedial pullout programs, response to intervention (RTI) programs, various supplemental programs, and core intervention programs provided to at-risk readers, many classroom teachers still struggle to know how to best help their at-risk students succeed. Many teachers often resent the “swinging-door” phenomenon of pullout programs where instruction is interrupted by students coming and going out of classrooms, resulting in fragmentation of instruction for all students (Bean, 2004).

Response to Intervention and its Implications for Reading

Burns and VanDerHeyden (2006) describe the summit meeting associated with the use of RTI in special education. In 2001, the US Department of Education’s Office of Special Education Programs hosted a Learning Disabilities (LD) Summit meeting where Frank Gresham, a leading researcher in the field of consultation, presented an argument against the discrepancy model, and indicated that validated interventions should be in place prior to determining whether a student has a learning disability. Intervention procedures under RTI are often viewed as a three tier approach where primary prevention occurs within the core curriculum. Students failing to respond to the core curriculum progress to a secondary program involving small group instruction that is scientifically supported. The tertiary level is initiated when students demonstrate poor progress towards step two and require an individualized program or special education (Fuchs & Fuchs, 2006).

RTI promotes early intervention and resolves some of the issues associated with the discrepancy model. Historically, the discrepancy model required students to fail academically before they could be identified for services. The discrepancy model also excluded a large number of students who had low IQ scores, came from low-socioeconomic backgrounds, as well as other poor readers who did not meet the discrepancy. Other concerns include the use of differing discrepancy formulae and assessment instruments across students (Fuchs et al., 2004; Fuchs et al., 2003).

The assumption of RTI is that if implemented correctly, schools will be able to differentiate between students who have a disability and students who needed more or different instruction. As a result, fewer referrals for special education should be made, leading to successful identification of children who are truly disabled (Fuchs & Young, 2006). In addition to US Department of Education’s Office of Special Education, Burns and VanDerHeyden (2006) cite several agencies concurrently endorsing RTI, including the National Research Panel’s report on minority students in special education, the National Center for Learning Disabilities, the Division of Learning Disabilities of the Council for Exceptional Children, and the National Association of State Directors of Special Education.

Despite continuing support from leading research organizations in education, there is some dispute regarding the sole use of RTI instead of the discrepancy model. In a competing views dialogue between Batsche and Kavale (Batsche et al., 2006), Kavale posits that RTI is a valuable prevention tool to be used to contribute to the identification process; however, it should not be used to diagnose. When asked about the research base of RTI, Basche states, “the primary measure of implementation integrity is improved student outcomes, not whether every ‘step’ in the process was completed the same way in every setting” (Batsche et al., p. 10), as compared to the discrepancy model, which emphasizes identification. Kavale describes an adequate but incomplete research base, citing the Minneapolis model and Heartland model as lacking data regarding student progress. Kavale considers RTI as still in the experimental stage as many local education agencies (LEA) are not equipped with the required resources to implement RTI to its fullest potential (Batsche et al.).

Fuchs and Deshler (2007) posit that while many practitioners and administrators are aware of RTI and successful implementation, many are not. To be successful, Fuchs and Deshler reference six elements needed for effective implementation to occur: (a) professional development programs to address skills needed for RTI as well as staff turnover; (b) administrator support, clearly stated expectations, and procedures to measure implementation integrity; (c) hiring teachers with prior knowledge and skills to implement RTI; (d) willingness of staff, including teachers and school psychologists to redefine roles; (e) provision of time for staff to ask questions and incorporate RTI into their instruction; and (f) whether the decision to implement RTI was made at the grassroots verses administrative level.

Phonics Based Reading Intervention

The National Center for Educational Statistics identified a nationwide reading gap (Otaiba et al., 2005). Most efforts to address reading problems target children in kindergarten through third grade. Less than one child out of eight who is not reading by the end of first grade will ever catch up to their reading peers (Bryant, Vaughn, Linan-Thompson, Ugel, Hamf, & Hougen, 2000). Poor readers in first grade continue to move through school as poor readers, learning new words at a much slower rate than their reading peers resulting in an increased gap over time.

The National Reading Panel (NRP) was initiated in 1997 as a means to examine the status of research-based knowledge specifically relating to various instructional approaches in the area of reading (National Reading Panel: Reports of the Subgroups, 2000). Meta-analyses were conducted by the NRP in several reading areas. Because the current study targeted implementation integrity of a phonics based reading intervention, the NRP results regarding phonics, teacher education, and reading instruction were examined.

The definition of phonics is the “conscious concentrated study of the relationship between sounds and symbols for the purpose of learning to read and spell” (Savage, 2007, p. 7). Children identified as being poor readers at the end of their elementary school careers have been identified as typically having difficulties with comprehending the alphabetic principle when decoding unfamiliar words (Torgesen, 1998). Understanding the alphabetic principle, the sound/symbol relationship, is an important step in decoding and encoding words. With the ability to decode, children can bring their past knowledge and understanding of language to attain comprehension (Savage). It is the slower than normal ability to read sight words fluently and accurately that impacts comprehension in older students who are poor readers (Torgesen). Through RTI, it will be easier to differentiate these students from those who are behind in reading due to environmental factors.

Results of the NRP meta-analysis regarding phonics instruction conclude the following (National Reading Panel; Reports of the Subgroups, 2000):

1. Systematic phonics instruction contributes more to reading growth than programs that are unsystematic or provide no phonics instruction.

2. Non-phonics programs are significantly less effective than phonics programs; however, when comparing phonics programs, no comparative significant difference was evident.

3. Effective phonics instruction can occur when delivered through tutoring in small group and class-wide settings, although greater effect size is noted in small group settings.

4. Phonics instruction is most effective when introduced in kindergarten and first grade and when preceded by letter knowledge and phonemic awareness.

5. Phonics instruction is significantly more effective than non-phonics instruction for at-risk readers, but more research is needed on low-achieving readers.

6. Systematic phonics instruction enhances word reading skills, comprehension, and spelling in kindergarteners and first graders.

The NRP concludes its phonics analysis by recommending that phonics should be supplemental and integrated with other reading instruction. Phonics is targeted for the current study because it is identified as a precursor skill for comprehension. Children falling behind their peers in kindergarten, first, and second grade will likely need further support and mastery in this area.

Explicit phonics instruction has been identified as a key component in educating early readers. Several pertinent terms are often associated with effective phonics instruction: (a) systematic phonics instruction, wherein more common sounds are taught prior to more complex sounds; (b) alphabetic principle, phonemes or sounds associated with language are represented by graphemes, letters, or letter combinations; (c) letter-sound correspondences, making the association between visually seeing a letter or letter combination with the auditory sound it represents, (d) decoding, use of letter sound correspondences to translate a printed word into speech, (e) decodable texts, providing text which utilize letter-sound correspondences being taught (Armburster & Osborn, 2001; Reading Leadership Academy, 2002; Savage, 2007).

When receiving reading instruction, students should participate in 90 minute reading blocks and those identified as requiring more intensive instruction should be targeted for interventions and their progress should be monitored regularly (Otaiba et al., 2005). Interventions should be driven by progress monitoring data to ensure the student is receiving instruction in the needed areas, and should include the following: (a) reading interventions should be provided in small groups that are differentiated by needs and abilities; (b) adjustments should be made appropriately regarding intensity of instruction and group placement, and should be based on progress monitoring data; (c) small group instruction should include increased practice opportunities and direct (explicit), systematic instruction including error corrections and immediate positive feedback (NJCLD, 2005; Torgesen 2007).

The development of curriculum-based measures (CBM) by the University of Minnesota Institute for Research on Learning Disabilities during the late 1970s arose as a means to provide educators with information regarding the effectiveness of academic interventions. Criteria for these measures are based on the measures’ ability to assess skills that will improve if the intervention is effective. Measures should be; (a) related to curriculum, (b) reliable and valid, (c) sensitive to improvement, and (d) inexpensive and easy to produce (Green & Shinn, 1990).

As the use of CBMs have been embraced by NCLB and Reading First (Reading Leadership Academy Guidebook, 2002), CBMs have also been adopted within the RTI model to assess student progress school-wide by targeting at-risk students, monitoring their progress over time, and using the data to determine which intervention to implement (Rouse & Fantuzzo, 2006).

Information from CBMs can also be used to assist in differentiating instruction by designing small group instruction based on individual student needs (Kosanovich, Ladinsky, Nelson, & Torgesen, n.d.). Differentiated instruction includes key components such as: (a) flexibility based on data and observation, (b) small groups of three to five students with similar learning needs, (c) are organized based on number of times per week and number of minutes per group sessions, (d) and can be presented through guided reading or skills-focused lessons.

Riley-Tillman and Burns (2009) describe interventions at Tier 2 level as focusing on a small group of students who are not making sufficient progress with the class’ standard curriculum. Instruction should follow developmental patterns, for example, if the bulk of the class has mastered phonics, yet the at-risk group of students has not, the teacher should focus on additional instruction in phonics with at-risk group. At this stage, teachers should be tailoring the instruction to the needs of the student.

When considering Tier 2 assessment Riley-Tillman and Burns describe the use of curriculum based measures that are repeatable and assess sub-skill mastery. Once the measure has been selected and progress has been monitored than the data can be used to determine whether a student is responding or is not responding to the intervention. Because it is difficult to conduct experimental designs within a school setting, it is recommended to use non experimental design when assessing student outcomes and making RTI decisions. A-B designs are considered useful in monitoring a child’s response to a small group intervention. If a child makes considerable progress than the data can be used to determine the duration of continued intervention or whether the child’s skills are sufficient to return to Tier 1. If limited progress is made than consideration of a more intensive or different intervention should be made, or movement to Tier 3 should be considered.


Research is providing guidance for classroom teachers as to how to provide the best instruction to enable as many students as possible to succeed in reading (Connor et al., 2007). Research on the 3-Tier Model (Vaughn, 2003) and RTI (Torgesen et al., 1999) is providing additional guidance for classroom and intervention teachers serving at-risk students. Allington and Johnston (1986) argued that curricular congruence may be the key to the design of effective programs for alleviating school failure. Research on aligning supplemental reading instruction for at-risk students to classroom core reading instruction can create a bridge between regular education settings and supplemental intervention programs.

As a result of the RTI legislation, the roles of general educators will be impacted; however, the degree of change in these roles continues to be ambiguous for many practitioners (Mastropieri & Scruggs, 2005). There has been a historical dispute over what constitutes evidence regarding evidence based interventions. Little training is reported by pre-service teachers exiting training programs in the areas of reinforcement, graphing, and progress monitoring. There is a strong relationship between teacher variables and student outcomes reinforcing a need to emphasize professional development and support.

In some schools currently implementing RTI, general educators are given the responsibility for progress monitoring and implementing interventions during the first two tiers; however, they may not possess the knowledge or skills to be facilitating this responsibility. Some educators argue that special education should step up and take on the responsibility and funding for RTI while others feel RTI is a general education initiative (Mastropieri & Scruggs, 2005).

Although the major tenets of effective reading instruction are being defined and explained by reading research organizations, there is dissent regarding its implementation on both classroom and school-wide levels. For example, teachers and administrators may lack training in identifying valid research findings associated with effective instruction (Lyon et al., 2005). Highly qualified teachers or professionals may not always be available to provide reading interventions. Torgesen (n.d.) suggests providing individuals who are not highly qualified with systematic intervention programs that are structured and scripted in the absence of such professionals.

The NRP (2000) explored reading instruction research finding a predominate focus on students, materials, and tasks; rather than teacher performance. Professional development was identified as an area of concern during NRP regional meetings. As a result, current research regarding teacher performance was also examined. One concern with the teacher performance research is that it is primarily correlational. The research is also deficient in identifying the content of teacher education or professional development.

The NRP points out that teacher education has been neglected in intervention research because it is assumed that student outcomes are attributed to the intervention which has been delivered by the teacher, rather than associating student outcomes to the integrity of adhering to the intervention. Half of the studies examined by the NRP measure student and teacher outcomes and found in most cases, that teacher professional development produced higher student achievement. The NRP concludes that further research is needed in this area to examine specific variables and programs contributing to change.


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